MAPPING YOUR FAMILY
Placing your family using historic maps helps you understand their lives better and may break down those tricky brick walls says Anthony Adolph
Over 30,000 years ago, near Pavlov in Moravia, one of our Ice Age ancestors took a piece of mammoth tusk and scratched on it a series of symbols – jagged lines for mountains, the wiggling course of a river and a series of rings.
It is probably the oldest map in the world, and it works, because the landscape depicted matches the one in which it was found and the rings correspond well to known camp sites from the time when it was made.
The purpose of this, and most later maps, was to stop people getting lost. And, just as they work well for people travelling on the ground, they are also essential for us time-travellers, as a means of stopping us from getting lost as we delve back into the past to try to track down our ancestors.
Stories of journeys
For a start, maps are useful for working out how places mentioned in family memories, and in documents relating to your ancestors, fit together. A family tree stretching back only a few generations is likely to contain quite a number of place names, and it’s essential to understand how these fit together. Are all the places mentioned very close together, for
instance, or do they fall into groups, starting in one part of the country, then jumping suddenly to another? If they fall into several groups, do they make sense by revealing journeys, of agricultural ancestors migrating into industrial cities, perhaps, followed by their more prosperous descendants moving out into that city’s leafier suburbs? Or do they perhaps reveal how a nautical family started in a fishing harbour in Cornwall and then migrated along the coast to the Cinq Ports of Kent and ended up, via a sojourn in Great Yarmouth, in the industrial port of Newcastle upon Tyne?
By understanding how a family tree works on a map, you can reveal stories of journeys which may otherwise have remained hidden which in turn make sense of those generations. You might also discover that what looks like a journey was nothing of the sort. Sometimes, you’ll find two or three place names mentioned on a family tree, suggesting a lot of movement, but when you study a map you will find these places were virtually on top of each other. Your ancestor may have remained in exactly the same cottage, but went to church over there, was enumerated in the census under that township there, yet was registered under the parish over the hill under whose jurisdiction his home fell.
Maps help reveal not just what happened, but why. They might show that your kin moved from this village to that town specifically because it was the closest industrial area. Alternatively, there may have been a direct road, river, canal or railway leading straight to it, making it the most obvious route to take. Equally, David Hey wrote persuasively in Journeys in Family
Historyy about the extraordinary pull of the market town in pre-industrial society. Each one was effectively a sun amidst its mini solar system of villages, and most movement within the locality was not randomly from village to village, but into the market town and then out to another satellite village. For it was in the market town that servants and labourers were hired, that girls met boys and new leases of farm land were advertised and taken up.
Predicting the past
Just as maps explain what was going on in the sections of family tree you have already traced, they can also be incredibly useful, especially when combined with reading about local and social history, in helping predict where earlier generations are likely to have come from. Rural ancestors probably came, more likely than not, from one of the other villages in the orbit of the same market town in which their descendants lived, but not necessarily one of the adjacent villages – as David Hey showed – their origins could lie in one the same distance out of the market town in the other direction. Families in industrial cities may have come from other conurbations where similar trades were followed, or direct from the city’s hinterland, probably following the transport links which existed at the time. This is where old maps really come into their own and time spent poring over these will never be wasted, as you will become ever more familiar with how thing were in your ancestors’ day.
A sense of place
You may, for example, have two possible baptisms for your ancestor, found in
Knowing where people lived makes an immense difference to your research
familysearch.org. Examination of modern maps shows that one church is much closer than the other to where you know the family lived and there are direct transport links to both. However, a map from the relevant period may show the railway that now goes to that closer place arrived 50 years after the baptism there, whereas at the time a straight Roman road ran direct to the place further away – making that farthest place the one best explored first.
Sometimes, knowing where people lived makes an immense difference to how we think about and research our ancestors. Scotland is a good example, where trying to trace family trees without maps and a basic understanding of the country is almost a waste of time. Highland families lived under the clan system, or its vestiges, taking up tenancies from the clan chief; or being ‘cleared’ in the late 18th or early 19th centuries to unprofitable land on the chiefs’ estates. They may have left altogether to go to the nearest industrial city in the Central Belt, or even emigrated. Lowlanders generally orbited around market towns with their hiring fairs, or clustered into the industrial towns. Yet those who lived in the burghs, wherever they were, led quite different lives which can be traced through burgh records. If they moved at all, it was generally from one burgh to another.
Town and cities
Besides old and modern maps made to stop travellers getting lost, there are also many specialist maps produced for specific purposes which we can use in tracing our family trees. They can be found in local archives, libraries, county record offices and the national archives of England and Wales (at Kew), Scotland (in Edinburgh), Northern Ireland (in Belfast) and Eire (in Dublin), as well as the National Library of
In the countryside, estate maps started to be drawn up in the late 16th century
Wales (in Aberystwyth), not to mention the British Library in London.
There will often be plans of towns and cities dating back surprisingly far, or reconstructions of them – the late Bill Urry’s Canterbury Under the Angevin
Kings contains(1967), for instance, sincredibly detailed maps of the town showing specifically who lived in which house at certain points in the Middle Ages. In the British Library and Guildhall Library in London are 18th and 19th century fire insurance plans, covering many towns around Britain, which include details of materials used to build the house concerned, how many storeys it had, and sometimes even names of the householders. Prockter and Taylor’s The A-Z of Elizabethan London (published by Harry Margary, a prolific reproducer of old maps, in association with Guildhall Library, 1979) reproduces maps so detailed that you can almost peer through your ancestors’ windows and see them still living inside.
For some cities there are maps produced in the 19th and early 20th centuries which chart and study poverty. The most famous are the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty produced in 1903 by Charles Booth and featured in last month’s issue of the magazine. Every London street was colour-coded from black to yellow, ranging from ‘Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy’, down through ‘very poor, casual. Chronic want’, to ‘ lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal’. These maps are at the London School of Economics and searchable via the Charles Booth Online Archive at
Heading for the country
In the countryside, estate maps started to be drawn in the late 16th century, often showing and naming fields, woods and buildings with precise acreage and including the names of neighbouring landowners.
They often accompanied rent rolls or rentals naming the tenants, and are especially useful when a series exists over a period of time, allowing you to trace the succession of generations holding the same house or field. Irish and Scottish estate records are particularly useful when they predate surviving parish registers. Most remain in private muniment rooms or solicitors’ offices, but there are plenty in national and county record offices, usually catalogued under the estate owners’ name.
The tithe apportionment maps cover roughly three quarters of the English and Welsh parishes between 1838 and 1854. Their purpose was to regularise the payment of tithes, and they show and number each field and building. The numbers refer to corresponding tithe schedule books, which describe the land and its rentable value, and show names of owners and occupiers, providing you with a fine written and graphic description of where your ancestors were living. Copies are at county record offices and also at The National Archives ( TNA) in classes IR 29 (schedules) and IR 30 (maps). Some county collections have been digitised (for example, Devon, Cornwall, Cheshire and Leeds) or are in the process of being digitised so it’s worth enquiring about these at the relevant county record office. The collection at TNA is currently being digitised by The Genealogist where the schedules can already be accessed with maps being added in 2015. The new
Welsh project Cynefin ( cynefin.archiveswales.org.uk) aims to digitise more than 1,100 Welsh tithe maps and link them to the relevant apportionment document.
Many landowners did away with the medieval open field system and its associated smallholdings and commons, and reallocated the land as hedged fields or created elegant deer parks or landscaped gardens. This process of ‘Enclosure’, as it was termed, generated detailed maps.
Dating from the 17th century onwards, the maps and associated enclosure awards, detailing which landholders were allocated what, can be found at county record offices and TNA while those carried out by Act of Parliament are at the House of Lords Record Office.
The Emerald Isle
Amongst Ireland’s most useful maps are those accompanying Sir Richard Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Ireland (1831-1864). The original records are in The National Library of Ireland and are now online. They have recently been added to Findmypast, but I use the version on askaboutireland.ie which links the results of Griffiths’ survey of all householders, however small and poor, with Google Maps and Griffith’s own maps, on which the plot numbers relate to those in the written records. You can discover what land your family tenanted in the mid-19th century and see exactly where this land was on a contemporary map.
Also essential for Irish research are the parish maps in James G Ryan’s Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History (1997 and later reprints) whichh show the layout of the parishes within the counties, accompanied by lists of available registers for the different denominations.
Also useful are the surname-distribution maps in the various editions of Edward MacLysaght’s Irish Families, which pretty much tell you where ancestors of a certain surname are likely to be found.
Not lost at all
The more you look, the more maps you will find. The more you study these and read about the areas where your ancestors lived, the better you will come to understand them, and how you came to be who you are now: and you will also grow much cannier at fathoming out where they came from! Anthony Adolph is a professional genealogist and the author of Tracing Your Family History (Collins) and Tracing Your
Aristocratic Ancestors (Pen & Sword).
Market towns exerted an extraordinary pull on workers in pre-industrial society
A 19th century fire insurance plan of Chelmsford from the collection at the British Library
This map of Waterford accompanies Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Ireland (1831-1864)